The Last Queen
by C. W. Gortner
I have been looking forward to reading this book for AGES, ever since I saw it while shopping in London. Queen Juana of Spain is usually overlooked due to the tribulations of her younger sister Katherine of Aragon. But Juana’s story, especially as told by C. W. Gortner in The Last Queen is just as compelling, tragic and disturbing as any event in the Tudor court.
Juana pens her memoirs as an old woman, imprisoned in Tordesillas by her relatives because she is insane. Utterly isolated and alone save for the corpse of her husband and servants loyal to her enemies, she takes to writing as a way of sharing her life with others, beginning with her childhood as an Infanta of Spain, when she lived under the iron will of her mother, the great Isabella of Spain. This formidable woman arranged a marriage for Juana to Philip, Duke of Burgundy and heir to the Holy Roman Empire. The passion he ignites in Juana – not for nothing is called ‘Philip the Handsome’ – leads to the happiest time in her life as they celebrate being young newlyweds in love. However, things fall apart when Juana catches Philip in bed with another woman. At the time, infidelity was quite normal for a royal husband, and Juana’s demand for absolute fidelity drives a wedge between Philip and her that will never disappear, even as Juana produces one healthy child after another. Eager to thrust them further apart is Philip’s ruthless right-hand man, Archbishop Besancon, a man who seeks power for Philip but cares little about Juana or Spain’s interests. He draws Philip away from Juana, siding with the advisor over his wife in everything. When her older siblings die and Juana becomes heir to the throne, suddenly Besancon’s intentions become crystal-clear: their marriage was not to unite the kingdoms of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire in a union as powerful of Castile and Aragon. Instead of Juana ruling as Queen with Philip as her Prince-Consort, Besancon wants her to cede her throne to Philip and grant him Kingship. Enraged, Juana must fight for her birthright, but with no one on her side and vicious rumors about her spreading faster than the plague, Juana’s dream for reconciliation with her husband and a peaceful life ruling Spain with her children dies a little every day.
Every little action Juana takes to preserve the life she was raised for is twisted and blown to ridiculous proportions. In the brutal propaganda Philip and his powerful cohorts spread there seems to be many parallels to the modern quest for power. In the power play and media frenzy of America’s presidential campaigns I see potential inspiration for Gortner’s sympathetic portrait of Queen Juana. She is prone to temper and rash action, but Juana the Mad isn’t crazy at all.
I really enjoyed The Last Queen, and it reads very quickly. The history and weight of political intrigue are masterfully handled so that the story is never bogged down with mind-numbing info-dumps. The elements of the story are also extremely balanced, with no action being sacrificed for the sake of backroom monologues and discussions and sweet domestic concerns tempering the endless pageantry of the royal courts. Imprisoned by her father, husband and son Juana was silenced for most of her life but in Gortner’s hand, she is finally given a chance to tell her fascinating tale.